In February I went to the Scottish LibDems' spring (and, more importantly, pre-Holyrood election) conference. There are always many debates; usually there is little contentious - the motions tends to be no-brainers, with little dissent - but there three or four this time which I found challenging, and I ended up voting against my natural position. It was uncomfortable, though I think I did the right thing.
First there was a debate about supporting communities in the highlands and islands. I actually missed must of the discussion, and I didn't actually vote because of that - it didn't feel right. The motion was that differentially high charges for utilities, like electricity, petrol, heating oil, deliveries and broadband, were hindering rural communities, and should be capped so that prices were the same throughout Scotland. It was passed more or less unanimously. What felt wrong, despite what I feel was a well deserved motion, was that it also felt illiberal: increased regulation, what might be anti-market behaviour, and a centralisation of control rather than devolving power. (Markets do however need regulating.)
This was heightened by a discussion for consultation (not a motion) over funding local finances. There were several options discussed: local income tax (a long term LibDem favourite); land value tax; property value tax; or an amended council tax. What became clear Is that there are significant problems with all of them. And what became clearer was that the current system of funding local services is broken. Council tax raises only 12% of local expenditure (figure here , most of the rest coming from a grant from the Scottish government funded by national taxation. In Scotland, the SNP government has frozen council tax since 2007. This has broken the link between council tax and local accountability.
What I took away from the discussion was that local councils needed to raise much more funding locally - someone suggested 50% would be a reasonable figure - using a range of different taxes, including perhaps income, land and property taxes, rather than just one. National taxes would be reduced accordingly.
The thing is that the cost of delivering services in rural areas is more than in cities, but rural populations are less able to pay. Supporting devolution of tax raising powers to fund local spending goes against the motion supporting unified charging across Scotland for utilities.
There was a similar dissonance raised in two strongly argued motions to amend the party's constitution to allow the selection of all-female shortlists for candidates. For all its talk of equality, the LibDems have a woeful record on diversity, and this motion would allow the party to tackle its gender bias. I supported it, particularly after two excellent speeches by Jo Swinson and Sophie Bridger, who argued that all attempts to reduce gender bias had, to date, failed, and the lack of LibDem MPs meant that there were fewer problems with incumbents.
The difficulty for me is that this goes against the perceived meritocracy (though clearly unless one believes men are better than women, that hasn't been a worry to date) and inhibits the ability of local parties to select the candidates they believe best for their constituency (albeit that these seem mostly to have been men in the past). The motions were passed, for a trial period.
(With a lesson in chairing a meeting: if someone demands a count if hands, give it to them. To fail to do just appears undemocratic, and the more you put it off, the stronger the demand will become.)
What caused most dissonance for me was the amendment to a motion, to remove the party's support for a moratorium on fracking. I'm anti fracking: it appears harmful to the environment, and I'm in favour of renewables. The amendment was based on the fact that this stance goes against evidence-based policy making, of which I'm in favour.
The 2014 Independent Expert Scientific Panel Report on Unconventional Oil And Gas found that there was nothing harmful with fracking per se, and the amendment reckoned that, given an adequate regulatory and planning environment, fracking should be permitted.
In addition, without onshore fracking in Scotland, we are simply exporting the problem to areas which may not have an adequate regulatory regime. Scotland currently imports shale gas from the USA (where, for instance, some of the problems attributed to fracking - such as contamination of the water table, leading to people being able to set fire to tap water - apparently stem from earlier contamination, not fracking).
Supporting evidence based policy making goes against the moratorium on fracking. It was not possible for me to support both. I came down in favour of the amendment, but it still rankles.
The amendment was passed.
(The decision was overturned by the party's policy committee (aka Willie Rennie, the party leader) on environmental grounds. The amendment was inconsistent with the party's policies to reduce CO2 emissions and promote renewable energy sources. That's fine by me, but there's been quite a row about this. Frankly, it's a political party, and allowing fracking is a vote loser. I'm quite happy with the ambiguity.)